LOS ANGELES - The school's most celebrated players now tend to be quarterbacks, but the University of Southern California's long-standing reputation as "Tailback U" is, in some ways, more valid than ever.
USC, which has produced Heisman Trophy-winning tailbacks Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White, Marcus Allen and Reggie Bush, doesn't feature any running back who has rushed for as many as 700 yards this season. But the fifth-ranked Trojans have three tailbacks who split time more or less equally and, collectively, have run for 1,892 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Sophomore Joe McKnight (84 carries, 646 yards, 7.7-yard average, two TDs) is the game-breaker, the guy whose sprinter's speed and elusiveness can turn a simple dive play into a highlight-reel display of improvisational genius.
Junior Stafon Johnson (123 carries, 642 yards, 5.2, nine TDs) has exceptional peripheral vision and an uncanny knack for setting up blocks.
Redshirt soph C.J. Gable (101 carries, 604 yards, 6.0, eight TDs) is a whirling dervish who is equally adept at hurdling or stiff-arming would-be tacklers.
"They're all very special," USC quarterback Mark Sanchez said of his three-headed tailback monster, each of whom is listed as a starter.
For Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, whose sixth-ranked Nittany Lions have the unenviable task of neutralizing a rotation of talented, always-fresh tailbacks in Thursday's 95th Rose Bowl game, it's a case of picking your poison.
"You could almost say it's a case of running-back-by-committee, except they're all good enough to be the featured back for a lot of teams," Bradley said.
It helps that McKnight, Johnson and Gable are willing to subjugate their egos for the betterment of the team.
"None of us is concerned with the number of carries we get or how many yards we gain," Johnson said. "Winning means more than anything else.
"It took some getting used to. In high school, we were all, like, the guy. Then again, we knew coming in how things were here."
Hey, there's only one football and only so many touches to go around.
"It's a different era now," Johnson said of the change from the days when the Garretts, Whites, Simpsons and Allens were high-carry workhorses who ran like thoroughbreds. "A lot of NFL teams are using two and sometimes three backs. It kind of started here with Reggie and LenDale [White]."
Fresh and stale
Penn State is making only its third Rose Bowl appearance ever and its first since the undefeated 1994 team beat Oregon. USC, on the other hand, is an old hand at this Rose Bowl business. The Trojans will be making the school's 33rd appearance in the "granddaddy of them all," their fourth straight and their fifth in 6 years.
No wonder the Penn State kids seemingly are enjoying the pregame pageantry more than the Trojans, many of whom have experienced all this over and over.
"When it comes to stuff like that, I'm really like a little kid," Penn State senior fullback Dan Lawlor said of Friday's visit to Disneyland, an annual staple of the Rose Bowl hoopla. "I wanted to go on every ride."
Contrast that with USC senior defensive end Clay Matthews' derisive comment of "the happiest place on earth" when asked about getting another chance to cavort with Mickey Mouse and Snow White.
"All 4 years have been the same," USC senior wide receiver Patrick Turner said. "Disneyland, the Improv. At least it was a different group of comedians at the Improv the other night. They were kind of funny. I laughed." *